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Week 3 Presentation: Cataloguing Collection Objects

Week 3 Presentation: Cataloguing Collection Objects

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  • Welcome back to our online classroom for Cataloguing Museum Collections: History, Trends, and Issues. I am Michael Jenkins, your instructor for this week and happy to say that I seem to have managed to create a voice recording for this week’s presentation. So “Hello,” from me and my voice. One advantage of an online class is not having to trudge through the heavy snow of the DC area, although who doesn’t like a snow day. Anyhow, we are here in the ether and ready to learn more about cataloguing.
  • This week our course will investigate the past, present, and future of object cataloguing. We will take a look at the reasons that museums have catalogued objects and the relationship of that rationale to the kind of cataloguing that is done. Throughout, I hope you will find that the type of cataloguing that done by a museum is a direct reflection of its perception of its mission and its audience. Cataloguing, like everything else, happens in a context of limited resources. How museums choose to use those resources effects the object records in a catalogue systems.In this presentation, I am going to consider cataloguing for physical stewardship, cataloguing for access, and cataloguing for documentation. Throughout, I want us to think about how these activities are similar, how they are different, and the role of the media of cataloguing (by this I mean ledger books, catalogue cards, collections management systems, etc.) in shaping these activities.
  • Given the fiduciary responsibilities of museum officers and trustees, most museum cataloguing began as an inventory for the physical stewardship of collections. The institution of the museum in the US has most often been a civic institution. Many museums were founded in the late nineteenth and early 20th centuries as tools for the education of the broader public by the scholarly and social elite. Most were formed as non-profit corporations and have legal responsibilities under charters and non-profit law. Chief among those responsibilities was the physical stewardship and care of the collection. In order to provide for this care, museums needed to register their objects, give them numbers and names, and keep track of this. Often this took the form of a list or ledger. If resources were particularly limited and access and scholarly investigation were not priorities for an organization, often object cataloguing ended here. This is reflected in the survey of the Heritage Health Index that we read last week. Many museums have simply lacked either the resources or the will to do more thorough cataloguing of their collections. I have worked with some of these organizations. They have a MS Excel document with a list of the several hundred or several thousand collections objects. The list is managed by the collections manager and if that person is conscientious, it may be backed up offsite. Often it is not. Depending on the institution, this level of cataloguing doesn’t require a great deal of specificity of language to work. Is the object number on list, is the number on item? Okay. Sometimes that is just enough for collections wizard to remember where he put something, and to make it through periodic audits. We can all agree that this is not a good place for museum cataloguing to be.Many museums do a much better job of cataloguing for physical stewardship. Often this is the role of the Registrar. Good registrars use highly detailed collections systems to monitor and audit the physical stewardship of collections objects. They are joined in this role by curators, conservators, and technicians who take seriously the tasks of the physical care of collections. They record object movement through structured location hierarchies. They track objects as they go out on loan, being careful to record written descriptions of condition along with capturing condition with digital images. All of these activities, however, do quite little to make information about object accessible to either experts or the broader public.
  • As museums wanted to establish credibility and status and to promote scholarship in their areas of concentration, it became important for them to provide access to their collections holdings. Many of these holdings were tucked away in inaccessible store rooms and warehouses and allowing visitors free reign to peruse the collections wasn’t feasible. In order to provide access, museums began to catalogue the contents of their collection in support of access. Libraries did the same, and for a good part of their histories, the catalogue card system was the primary means of access information about a museum or libary collection. While the catalogue cards were valuable tools in unlocking the collections of museums, they were not particularly democratic. I want to briefly share a story that I heard Paul Le Clerc, the outgoing President of the New York Public Library, tell about a trip he took to do some research in his days as a Phd candidate. I may mince a few of the details as I am recalling this from memory, but the main point is clear…So as then Mssr. Le Clerc was working on his dissertation, he needed access to the holdings of an exclusive library in Paris. He wasn’t living in Paris at the time, so he would have to plan a trip to visit. He was a student without much money and a trip to Paris was going to be quite a stretch. In addition to coming up with the funds for the visit, he needed to secure two letters of introduction from members of the library in order to be allowed access. He used his connections at the University to get the letters of introduction. He made his plans to visit Paris for a few days. On his first day in Paris, he trekked to the library only to learn that it was not open that day and in fact was only open for visitors a few hours each week. Discouraged, he returned to his accommodations and planned to return the next day when the library was open. He did just that and the library was open, but as he entered with his letters of introduction in hand, he was informed that gentlemen must be properly attired in order to enter the library. Proper attire was a jacket and tie, and Le Clerc had neither. The person in charge of the door wasn’t going to budge. If not for the generosity of a neighbor on the street, Le Clerc would not have made it in to do the research that became central to his dissertation. This story clearly illustrates that access to object catalogues, and by extension object collections, has been constrained by physical and institutional barriers. Catalogue Cards. Early computerized systems. Modern websites. Attempts at cross-collection searching. CDWA lite. Googlization of search. Express how each of these methods had an effect on the way that museums catalogued.
  • Cataloguing museum collections on catalogue cards required that users have access to the museum physically and a schedule that allowed that access. In many organizations barriers were erected that controlled access by only allowing properly credentialed users access to catalogue records. There were legitimate reasons for this. Catalogue cards were often unique. An unscrupulous user could essentially destroy a museum’s knowledge of an object by taking, defacing, or misplacing a card. Card catalogues provided access on a few key elements of the catalogue record. We all remember the author, title, and subject cards of library card catalogues (or maybe we all don’t. I may be showing my age. Anyhow, most of us remember these cards.) Museums had similar cards for makers, titles, subjects, exhibitions, and bibliographic references. While practiced users of these systems could easily find all of the collections holding by a given artist, they would be flummoxed if asked to do multi-criteria searching like all late-fifteenth century French porcelain in the collection. Because of the limited scope of the access fields in a card catalogue, there was only limited need for standard entry of catalogue information. As long as the organization fields (maker, title, subject, exhibition, and bibliography) were entered in a standard way, the system would work. And it did, for quite some time, although by limiting access to a few points of entry, it limited discovery.Early computerized systems changed all of this. With digital systems now almost all fields in the database became a point of access. No longer constrained by the physical limitations of space that governed the card catalogue, collections management vendors began adding more fields for the recording of very specific collections information. With database indexing and booleaned searching, now almost every field was a potential point of access to the collections catalogue. Museum staffs began taking advantage of these economies and were able to program more activities, do more shows, lend more objects and make more information about their collections available online. It is fair to say that digital technology has had an enormous democratizing effect on museums. With the explosion in the fields for cataloguing information and potential to search on all of it, museums have had some difficulty in rethinking what cataloguing for access means. In the last ten years, art museums have worked to agree on a standard for a base set of collections catalogue information necessary for the discovery of objects. We will discuss this work in greater detail in week XX of our course.
  • Only those museum with a high resource to collection ratio are able to catalogue for documentation. Most organizations have something called the object file with almost everything they know about an object crammed into a paper file system and organized in single manner. While it is good to centrally organize an institutions body of knowledge about a single object, doing so in a single paper-based filing system has many drawbacks. Probably the greatest drawback is the very limited access that this method provides. Even researchers with access to the file are dependent on the single organizing criterion (artist name, or accession number). There is very little cross-linking built into this kind of system. Users can’t see what else was in a historical exhibition along with the object. They can’t easily find other objects that were donated by the same benefactor or purchased from the same vendor. Finally, information in the object file has often been captured in a catch as catch manner with more or less information depending on staff interest in an object. While this type of object documentation has supported a great deal of scholarship and learning in the past, it is unsuited for contemporary forms of technology assisted discovery.So what are museums to do? Well, museums with significant resources have worked to mitigate the inefficiencies of the object file by doing thorough cataloguing for documentation of their works. This involves systematic research into all known publication about a specific work. Professional cataloguers, often with PhDs in their field of expertise, pore over modern and historic resources to document every time a work has been mentioned in scholarly publications, exhibition catalogues or lists, auction catalogues, collector and vendor inventories, and other resources. This information is then entered into collections management systems in a standardized form that allows users to pivot on any data point. For example if a user finds that she is particularly interested in the objects that were brought together for the seminal 1955 photography exhibit, “The Family of Man,” she can easily find an exhibition record that links to all objects in the collection that were included in the show. She will also see associated entity records for Edward Steichen and the Museum of Modern Art. If she wants to know more about Steichen’s earlier interest and the subjects of his photography, she can move through the related records in the system. Of course all of this is predicated on the user having deep levels of access to the collections catalogued and for most museums today that would mean she is an employee. But I posit that this limited access will go the way of the jacket and tie requirement at the library. Museums are on a steady march toward transparency and open access. Last year alone we saw very large object collections open up online, the V&A and the Smithsonian collections come to mind, and I think the successes of projects like these will challenge museums to be more open with their records. I remember a few years ago, I was sitting in a fairly large meeting about technology trends in museums that Susan Chun had organized in order to issue a report for museum executive leadership and boards on which trends to pay attention to. Our colleague Roger Bruce, from the George Eastman House described the museums of 2007 as “brilliant agoraphobics.” We have all of this great information to share that the public would love to see, but we are keeping it locked in our internal systems. I think the march of society and technology is going to demand that we unlock that knowledge. As we unlock that knowledge, there will be a blurring of the types of cataloguing we have discussed today.
  • As technological innovation has opened the door for sharing of collections catalogues, there has been a blurring of cataloguing for access, cataloguing for physical stewardship, and cataloguing for documentation. In the blog post that I have linked on this slide, a curator at the San Diego Museum of Art tells his story of looking to the historical catalogue records of another organization to learn about an object in the SDMA collection. The story illustrates the fluidity of catalogue records in a connected digital age. It also illustrates the fundamentally collaborative nature of the cataloguing activity. Have a read, it is entertaining.
  • So where is all of this heading? You will read in the article by Jane Sledge the importance of allowing multiple voices into our collections catalogue. That much is clear. In a time of diminishing resources, museums are going to need to be more strategic in their cataloguing activities. Later in our course we will talk about the potential for community sourced cataloguing. We will also learn about new technologies that may precipitate another radical shift in the way we catalogue. As an industry, museum cataloguing professionals are still trying to understand the implications of the shift from catalogue cards to digital catalogues. The technologies of the semantic web and image recognition may make the transition from cards to digital catalogues feel like a baby step. Throughout this change, museums’ decisions about how they catalogue will continue to be driven by the broader decisions about who we are, why we are relevant, and what our role is in public conversation.
  • I think that you are going to enjoy this week’s reading. Both Jane Sledge and Tom Hoving have the kind of voices that make you feel like you are being let in on a secret. The pull back the curtain on museum business and cataloguing in a way that allows us to consider the broader implications of recording information about objects. After you have read Sledge and Hoving, take a look at the Nazi Era Provenance Portal. Poke around and try to make sense of the boundaries of the project. What might you have done differently if you were creating the Portal today rather than ten years ago?Your writing assignment this week is to catalogue a product for sale at Amazon.com. As you model their data schema, include fieldnames and data values. Describe who is responsible for creating the data values. If there are authorities used to control the data values in a field, describe them. Note whether fields are used for search, display, or both. Note whether data values are required and whether they can repeat.
  • Our discussion this week will focus on our readings. In your first post to the discussion forum this week, pose a question to your classmates about this week’s reading. After you have asked a question, answer the question from one of your classmates. Our readings are quite lively and I encourage you to follow the lead of the authors and be provacative. See you on Sakai.

Jhu Week 3 Jhu Week 3 Presentation Transcript

  • Cataloguing Museum Collections
    History, Trends, and Issues
    Michael Jenkins
    JHU Museum Studies Spring 2010
  • Week 3: Cataloguing Collection Objects
    Cataloguing for physical stewardship
    Cataloguing for access
    Cataloguing for documentation
    How are they similar?
    How are they different?
    Is technology changing this?
  • Cataloguing for Physical Stewardship
  • Cataloguing for Access
  • Cataloguing for Access
  • Cataloguing for Documentation
  • Blurring of the Types of Cataloguing
    http://thegallerysd.blogspot.com/2009/11/discovering-rosalba-carriera.html
  • The Future of Object Cataloguing?
  • Reading and Assignment
    Read
    Green, D. (2007), "Museums, Cataloging & Content Infrastructure: An Interview with Kenneth Hamma" in Academic Commons, http://www.academiccommons.org/commons/interview/ken-hamma
    Write
    Catalogue a product for sale at Amazon.com. Include fieldnames and data values. Describe who is responsible for creating the data values. If there are authorities used to control the data values in a field, describe them. Note whether fields are used for search, display, or both. Note whether data values are required and whether they can repeat.
  • Discussions
    In your first post to the discussion forum this week, pose a question to your classmates about this week’s reading.
    After you have asked a question, answer the question from one of your classmates.